By Gáibhin McGranaghan
Up to 4,000 people attended a rally at Belfast City Hall on Saturday 31st May, against the background of racist and sectarian attacks over the last three months.
In the days following an emotional interview expressing how vulnerable she felt in the wake of fresh racist attacks on ethnic minority communities and in light of Peter Robinson’s backing of Pastor McConnell’s controversial comments regards Islam, Alliance Party MLA Anna Lo’s statement that she was not leaving Northern Ireland was received with rapturous applause from the assembled rally.
Preaching earlier in May, Pastor James McConnell of Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in Belfast, claimed Islam was “heathen” and “a doctrine spawned in Hell.”
His remarks instigated a backlash of furious responses across Northern Ireland. Yet, a number of prominent politicians have come out in defence of Pastor McConnell, among them Edwin Poots, Gregory Campbell and First Minister Peter Robinson.
Last week, Mr Robinson said that he would not trust Muslims who had been involved in terrorism or fundamentally followed Sharia law, but he would “to go down to the shops for me.”
Pastor McConnell is currently under investigation from the PSNI.
Echoing her earlier comments regarding the First Minster’s interview, at the rally Ms Lo condemned “what Mr Robinson said was total disrespect and condescending of the Muslim community.” She went on to express how touched she was “to see so many of you come out – not just in support of me obviously – but in support of all our ethnic minorities here in Northern Ireland.” Ms Lo was adamant in her belief that the demonstration’s attendance confirmed that “plenty of people have shown they want a diverse society.”
As of yet, she has not yet commented on reconsidering her earlier decision to stand down at the next Assembly elections in 2016. Her remarks were met with standing ovation, as numerous attendees made a point of individually congratulating her, offering words of support, handshakes, hugs and getting photographs taken with the South Belfast MLA.
Also speaking at the rally was a member of the local Muslim Community, Mohammed Samaana. A victim of racist attacks himself, Mr Samaana insisted that a public apology was still needed from the First Minister. Peter Robinson met leaders from the Muslim communities in Northern Ireland at a private meeting at Stormont, apologising for his previous statements.
Yet Mr Samaana did not believe this was adequate, saying that “he made his insult in public, he needs to apologise in public in my opinion. As a First Minister, I also expect him to come out and condemn the racist attacks from the start, not needed to be asked to condemn them.”
Speaking to The Gown, Alliance Party Lisburn City Councillor Aaron McIntyre was adamant that the Executive’s Racial Equality Strategy’s publication should be brought forward as soon as possible.
“This rally has shown that the community will not stand for racism. It is time the Executive implemented the Racial Equality Strategy which has been in the pipeline for several years. It is time that Stormont listen to the people they represent.”
Lorcan Mullen, one of the rally’s chief organisers, said that the event was done informally and the product of collective disgust among young people towards a recent wave of attacks on migrants, and the damaging statements made from several political leaders. Mr Mullen said that “this was just a gut reaction of citizens knowing that a statement had to made in support of those being attacked, maligned, condescended to & exploited.”
A smaller demonstration was held on the same day in Derry, with about 100 supporters in attendance. Among them were the SDLP’s Environment Minister Mark H Durkan and Derry City Mayor Martin Reilly.
Similar demonstrations and events are expected to be organised over the next week across Northern Ireland, with a public meeting being held in Belfast’s Holiday Inn on Islamaphobia and racism at 7.30pm on Tuesday 3rd June. Speakers expected include Anna Lo, Belfast City Councillor Gerry Carroll (People Before Profit) and representatives from the Muslim community and trade union movement.
A march through the city is organised by Amnesty International, Northern Ireland Council for Ethic Minorities and Irish Congress of Trade Unions Northern Ireland Committee, for Saturday 7th June leaving Writer’s Square at 2pm.